Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book 8: Summerland by Michael Chabon

You are Michael Chabon.

You've just published a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that deals with the Holocaust, the transformation of American culture in response to rapidly shifting entertainment availability, and the personal side of coming to terms with homosexuality in the face of denial and open hostility to that reality.

What next? An examination of immigration and how it is shaping worker's rights? A searing look at the effects of modern warfare on fragile psyches? An inside look at the corrupt trappings of a political campaign?

Well, no. If you are Michael Chabon you will write a 500 page novel for young adults in which the main character must play baseball alongside a race of fairies in order to keep a mythical evil force named Coyote from destroying the Lodgepole, a giant tree that encompasses four different worlds or planes of existence.

Whew. Did you get all that? When it came out it was originally placed on the adult fiction shelves in Barnes & Noble. I know because that is where I bought it from and read it in a fever. Being a baseball fan and father of a young boy I flipped my wig for this book. Shortly thereafter someone in the Chabon marketing department must have said, "Hey, guys, this isn't really a book for adults. We gotta get that thing in the kid section!"

Sure enough it was as if the book had a re-release party. There it was in the kid section. My son read it at a very young age and I'm still sort of blown away that he did so. But it is that kind of story, the kind of story that will inspire a kid (who isn't even a baseball fan when you get right down to it) to stretch his intellectual capability in order to get to the end of the story.

I can't be sure but I would bet a significant portion of my life savings (i.e. close to $200) that this novel started as a bedtime story in the Chabon house. It has that sprawling anything-goes feel of the many stories I invented off the top of my head for Cash. For example, I was dragging a story out to try and get Cash to fall asleep. In the story a kid and his dog were walking through the forest. I knew they were going to have an adventure but I wasn't sure what. All of a sudden they'd shrunk down and were sliding down into a flower.

The book is like that. Giant impossible realities are introduced and accepted without so much as a shrug. After the relentless awesome reality of 'Kavalier & Clay' this book was a pleasant absurdist shock to the system.

Since this book, Chabon has seemed to delight in taking on genres and infusing them with his own sensibility. It is almost commonplace now, a bit of a crutch within his own oeuvre. I know some day he'll drop a collection of words that are as weighty and far-reaching as 'Kavalier & Clay' but in the meantime his experiments are a boatload of fun.

Except for 'Gentlemen of the Road'. Holy shit, if I were in 'Summerland' I'd let Coyote destroy the world of that book in a heartbeat! What a stinker. But that is the joy of a writer like Chabon. He goes as far out on a limb of the Lodgepole as he can.

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